Literary or Not – The Reality of Escapist Fiction

Come to Me by Faizaan Ahab

Denied respect for much of literary history, what is the true value of escapist fiction?

By Sana Hussain

Escapist fiction by definition is writing that permits the reader to escape the ennui of the real world and indulge vicariously in an alternate reality. It is fiction that allows the reader to doff the burden of their problems and inhabit a world concocted by the author; a world that makes up for the arbitrariness and unpredictability of the real world by offering structure, rationality and resolution.

Given this definition, it may be argued that most fiction and the act of reading itself are escapist pursuits. I know for me they are. As a shy teenager, I found great comfort in reading; in being the eighth member of the Secret Seven club, in accompanying George and her cousins to mysterious moors and dark caves, and in being the partner in crime to the girls of Malory Towers. And even though I am not a teenager anymore, there is something to be said about the simple pleasure of immersing oneself in the predictable comfort of an old book, forgetting the real world that exists outside its musky, dog-eared pages.

Pitted against its supposedly superior counterpart, realism, escapism is considered inconsequential and superfluous.
But now, the words “escapism” and “escapist fiction” come laden with negative connotations. I am told that I must feel ashamed about my reading habits if I have a proclivity for the genre; call it a guilty pleasure? Critics and academicians classify escapist fiction and the genres of science-fiction, thriller, mystery, romance and fantasy, commonly classified under it, as sub-literary, deeming them unworthy of being regarded as true literature. Charges of shallowness and superficiality are brought up against escapist genre fiction, with its worth denigrated to entertainment alone. Not to disregard any motivation to read for purely aesthetic purposes, but the assertion that escapist fiction offers nothing more than the mere pleasure of escape is both false and unfounded.

The social and emotional value of escapism in fiction cannot be ignored just because it affords the readers an escape into an alternate world. In fact, by allowing its readers to become absorbed into the world of fictional characters, escapist fiction enables them to be more compassionate, something researchers believe stems from “the direct immersion in another person’s mind and body – that stimulates our empathic muscles”[1]. Norwegian psychologist Frode Stenseng categorizes escapism into two categories based on their respective outcomes: self-suppression and self-expansion. He acknowledges that there can indeed be a healthy motivation to seek escape, resulting in a more informed view of self. Fiction, I believe, offers more insight into human behavior than many psychological theories; in fact, seminal psychoanalytic theories (like that of the Oedipus complex) are drawn from literature.

Growing up with an old-school English teacher as a parent, the distinction was always made clear in my home. After a certain age, reading classics or literary fiction became an activity that was rewarded and encouraged, whereas reading a piece of escapist novel by Sidney Sheldon or Danielle Steele was severely looked down upon. And while I was never barred from reading any of this “trash”, there was significant shaming involved. So much so that I never actually owned a book by either of these authors for more than a month – I would read them and quickly trade them in for more “respectable” books at old book shops. This hierarchical division of books deemed worthy of being read against those that weren’t was neither right nor beneficial, in my opinion. Classification of literature should only be on the merits of good and bad writing. And reading, whether escapist or otherwise, should be free from expectation and judgment.

Neil Gaiman has also commented on the sullying of escapist fiction, “I hear the term bandied about as if it’s a bad thing. As if ‘escapist’ fiction is a cheap opiate used by the muddled and the foolish and the deluded, and the only fiction that is worthy, for adults or for children, is mimetic fiction, mirroring the worst of the world the reader finds herself in”[2].

Pitted against its supposedly superior counterpart, realism, escapism is considered inconsequential and superfluous. Unless the work overtly exposes the bitter realities of life or presents the readers with some profound philosophy, it is thought of less as “serious writing” and more as “light reading”. But what is perhaps not understood by critics is that escape does not mean a denial or evasion of real life issues; rather, it presents a more layered and complex way of looking at the world. Lloyd Alexander, popular fantasy writer, defends his genre against such an allegation, saying that “fantasy ishardly an escape from reality. It is a way to understand it.”[3].

Classification of literature should only be on the merits of good and bad writing. And reading, whether escapist or otherwise, should be free from expectation and judgment.
Ask any reader of escapist fiction and they will tell you that these works are, at times, more representative of reality than works of literary fiction. While literary fiction’s way of dealing with reality is undisguised and unambiguous, escapist fiction takes more of a circuitous route to achieve the same. In many cases, writers opt for a more subliminal and indirect method of representing the realities of life. But this in no way means that escapist fiction cannot be as poignant and resonate with a reader as much as any work of literary fiction. Who can say that works like ‘The Chronicles of Narnia’ or ‘The Little Prince’ are “mere escape”, when they communicate fundamental truths about morality and human behavior? What these simple lines — “One sees clearly only with the heart. Anything essential is invisible to the eyes…  It’s the time that you spent on your rose that makes your rose so important… You become responsible for what you’ve tamed. You’re responsible for your rose.” – spoken by the fox in Antoine de Saint-Exupery’s superb novella say about human relationships may be more profound than any found in realist fiction. And yet, I remember from my college days that when this story was taught to a bunch of literature students, it was pejoratively dismissed as infantile and escapist by most.

But if you ask me, escapism and realism are not mutually exclusive; based on the premise that all reading is eventually escapist, realist writing can contain the potential to provide escape. Likewise, escapist writing can confront the readers with the grave realities of life. Fairytales perhaps explain this dichotomy best; despite being the quintessential form of escapist writing, they are layered with universal and timeless life lessons. Bradley J. Birzer recounts an interesting assessment in ‘J. R. R. Tolkien’s Sanctifying Myth: Understanding Middle-Earth[4]’. He says that Tolkien believed that fairytales provide humans with a “means to escape the drabness, conformity, and mechanization of modernity”. Tolkien appended this sentence with a warning that this escape from the weariness brought on by modernity is not the same as an escaping from reality. He believed that life and its harsh realities are still there, but these tales merely reduce “all complex reality to a mere shadow of creation’s true wonders”. 

Seen within a historical context, this bias towards escapist fiction seems even more erroneous; some of the writings that are now hailed as literary classics were the escapist writings of another century. ‘Beowulf’ and ‘The Odyssey’, considered to be among the greatest works of literature ever produced, have provided inspiration for later works of fantasy. But despite the fact that they are inspired by these classics and contain the same stock characters, adventures across oceans and the archetypal fight between good and evil, these later works are classified negatively as escapist fiction and not literature. George Orwell’s ‘Animal Farm’ and ‘1984’ and Aldous Huxley’s ‘Brave New World’ could be classified as escapist fiction by current standards, but cannot be called sub-literary in any way. Jane Austen’s novels have all the prerequisites of escapist fiction; yet today, the works modeled after hers are dismissed as intellectual drivel. Of course, in this case, there is an overt gender bias; one that congratulates men writing about life experiences, but denigrates women for doing the same. This is why these works are grouped under the reductive label of “chick-lit” or the newly (and disturbingly) coined “bodice ripper”. However, the fact that these classics contain elements of escapist fiction and influenced future writers is in itself a negation of the notion that escapist fiction is not enduring.

Despite the popularity of escapist fiction, its reign over the publishing world, and massive appeal for readers, highbrow readers and critics still deem it undeserving of any true merit, placing it a notch below literary fiction. This kind of arrogant rejection, whether it stems from a misguided notion of superiority or asceticism, is fallacious. Escapist fiction needs to be reclaimed to mean more than “mere escape”. The distinction needs to be made on good and bad writing, not on the assumption that certain genre fiction is worthless because it provides an escape to the readers; an escape that may in many cases liberates the reader and reintroduces him/her to a different reality. Sort of like what Dumbledore says in ‘Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows’:

“Tell me one last thing,” said Harry. “Is this real? Or has this been happening inside my head?”

“…Of course it is happening inside your head, Harry, but why on earth should that mean that it is not real?”
Sana Hussain is Features Editor for the magazine.